Cannibalism: ” The killing and consumption of all or part of an individual of the same species.”
” It’s called Casablanca and I don’t really know what it is all about.” – Ingrid Bergman
Just the mere thought of “cannibalism” is enough to stop some people dead in their tracks. Reliable studies show many folks get queasy when they try to digest stories about the topic, and a good chunk of them think serial killer cannibals are deviants. Cannibalism has even been classified as a ” mental disorder.” When someone is called a “cannibal” it is not usually intended as a compliment, but rather a slur on the person’s character that slices them down to size. Despite all the apparent revulsion, people can never get their fill of cannibal pieces. Regardless of your preferences and tastes, such as exocannibalism, where you eat one’s enemies (a Red Sox fan gobbling down a salty Yankee fan); or endocannibalism, inside the tribe (having Aunt Millie for lunch with a little honey sprinkled on her), the forthcoming faintly gruesome account may be a little hard to stomach. Indeed it could leave you open mouthed in astonishment, but as always it serves to keep an open mind because cannibalism can nourish the creative impulses. With that off the table, so to speak, let us begin with the appetizer for a famous movie.
One of the most acclaimed motion pictures ever released was Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. A lugubrious foray into homicide and depravity featuring Anthony Perkins as the deranged Norman Bates, the 1960 cinematic masterpiece is regarded a classic in the horror genre. The memorable shower bloodbath where Janet Leigh is butchered left a deep impression on voyeurs and thrill seekers of various stripes and cravings. It is one of the iconic episodes in the movie annals so let us sneak behind the curtain by taking a peek at the genesis of the plot. To peel back the skin on the background, to get to the meat of the story if you will, requires a visit to a hearty old-fashioned tale of cannibalism.
Hitchcock modified a pulp fiction novel about a mentally baked murderer and brought it to life on the screen. The novel by Robert Bloch, coincidentally named ” Psycho”, as indicated was fiction, but it was rooted in bone-crunching reality, a chilling blow-by-blow chronicle of savage indulgence that some found morally repugnant, outright unpalatable. The fiend in question was a cannibal and necrophiliac named Edward Gein, whose last name conveniently rhymed with spleen. Gein bore an eerie similarity to Psycho’s barbaric Bates. Ed’s mother was an oppressive domineering type who caused him ceaseless psychological discomfort. He was an isolated figure and some found his demeanor unsettling, others even called him ” Weird Old Eddie”, an insult that intensified his anti-social tendencies. The wretched old witch who tormented him finally died, but in an act of piety, Ed preserved her room. That may seem ghoulish, but it was a tasteful shrine used as a refuge when he became sullen and had distressing urges to indulge his minor breaches of social mores. Egads, the setting seemed to only feed his flesh feasting fetish. You might conjecture that it brought out the worst in him while the house and premises deteriorated. Some men back in that era just didn’t have the knack for housekeeping. However one of the problems at the Gein house was that when women did show up – Ed ate them. It adds a whole different flavor to the expression ” Stop over for dinner sometime.”
One of the women in question was the unsuspecting Bernice Worden. It is doubtful she would have visited Ed if she knew what awaited her. She might have even been willing to give an arm and a leg to avert her somewhat grim fate. The place was mundane Plainfield, Wisconsin, and the year was 1957 when Bernice disappeared; people wondered where she was and started looking for her. The trail eventually led to Ed Gein’s farmhouse where the investigation took a macabre twist. Police found her but she wasn’t in very good shape: her heart was in the frying pan and the bulk of Bernice was rather indignantly stuffed in the icebox – she was dead. The officers also uncovered other oddities such as soup bowls meticulously molded out of human skulls and a belt crafted from human nipples. The menu of malevolence really surprised folks, they hadn’t seen anything like that in Plainfield before. The officers knew right then they had to take Gein into custody because he was a potential threat to the stability of the community.
Ed had clearly been industrious but gave cannibalism a bad stigma. One assumes many of the more responsible cannibals tried to distance themselves from him, lest they have their reputations besmirched. Law enforcement was hungry for information and to Ed’s credit, he was candid in his admission that he was culpable and did not try to conceal his misdeeds. He submitted an eye-popping confession that he had a peculiar compulsion and on occasion maybe went a little overboard in acting on it. There is little doubt that his dining habits were to the detriment of his victims, but were useful as a skeleton of the scheme for Hitchcock and the grisly Psycho which proved to be a spectacular critical and financial success.
There was also an unintended side-effect for audiences who saw the Hitchcock show. Some were able to save on soap and water because they developed ablutophobia, a grimy condition where the person suffers from a fear of bathing or showering. It even afflicted the aforementioned Janet Leigh after Psycho. The dreaded anxiety is reportedly quite common in the so-called Red States of political parlance and seems to be particularly frequent in Kentucky, no slight intended to trailer dwellers from Arkansas to Alabama. But leaving those utopian Bible-based Christian enclaves aside and returning to the main theme, even among less developed species such as Republicans, cannibalism is not that common. And in fact, among primates only 11 species have been found to practice it, and overall just 75 species, although researchers are enthusiastically looking for more.
You can be confident that studies into cannibalism are not going to die a slow death. There are still plenty of inquiry bites on the plate and perhaps no topic generates more heat and controversy than the issue of dinosaur cannibalism. For a long time it seemed like a no-brainer, paleontologists were convinced pre-historic Jurassic Park ancestors devoured each other. But hold the sauce, the trend is now moving in the opposite direction. Unfortunately the dinosaurs at the Kentucky Creationist Museum decline to be interviewed, but recent indirect evidence from fossils indicates they may have been scavengers but not outright same-species consumers. Bite marks also indicate fighting which is really no different than any modern marriage where angry partners gnaw on each other to settle disputes. Nibbling on a mate hardly passes the taste test to elevate dinosaurs or one’s spouse to elite cannibal status.
The jury is still out on that bone of contention but in the meantime you can remain on the alert for plausible threats. For instance if you are in a relationship and the object of your desire allows you to examine them closely, it is cause for alarm if you observe enlarged jaw muscles (probably from practice), it is probably a dead giveaway they have more sinister designs. In technical terms, those closing jaw muscles are known as ” leviator mandibulae” , however you can gracefully exit from the situation by complimenting them in the vernacular, ” You have really nice choppers, but I don’t think I’m a real good fit.”
That will be the last sample of cannibalism for the day as we move from that raw archive of barbarity to another delectable treat – Casablanca. Released in late November of 1942 and based on a 1941 historical setting, it was well-received at the time and is now canonized in the pantheon of great films. Like Hitchcock’s triumph from above, it was derived from another source; however unlike Psycho, it didn’t feature any cannibals, just comparatively more civilized types like Nazis, Vichy French collaborators of dubious ethical stock, smugglers, corrupt police, con men, and the morally ambiguous lead character Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart).
The writers and producers at Warner Brothers in Hollywood adapted the movie version from a three-story play written by midtown Manhattan residents Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Their original title was ” Everybody Comes to Rick’s” . Inspiration for their project came from a trip to Europe in 1938 when as loving husband and wife they visited Austria during the Nazi occupation (anschluss). They witnessed the disturbing malignity of anti-Semitism and were privy to stories of refugees following a convoluted escape route to Marseilles, which then branched over to Morocco, back to neutral Lisbon, and eventually to the U.S. A trip to Nice, France supplied more gravitas for their unfolding plot. (Keep in mind this was still in the late 1930s so America was not yet at war and U.S. citizens could still move about unhampered.) In Nice they stopped at a nightclub which was swarming with refugees, military personnel, and a black piano player from Chicago. This setting would be replicated in their play, and by extension, the movie, which upgraded parts of the narrative to accommodate the fast-moving events in Europe. With the bulk of the outline established, Burnett and Alison were originally going to make Lisbon the host city, but instead decided on more exotic Casablanca, a place neither of the co-authors had visited. Shortly after their return to the U.S., they had all the strands of the story in place and the draft was finished in the summer of 1940. Meanwhile, by June of that year the Germans had obliterated the somewhat inept French military and occupied the country. A few scraps were left to the French as they were allowed to administrate their collaborationist Vichy government in the southern region of the fractured nation with tentacles of jurisdiction stretching into North Africa.
Warner Brothers received the script on December 8, 1941 and was so confident of box office success they paid a hefty sum to Burnett and Alison for the rights. The initial outlay of $20,000 was the highest amount ever for an unproduced play, twice what Dashiell Hammett received for The Maltese Falcon. They also opted for a shorter catchier one-word title, hence Casablanca; it would prove to be a prudent choice and would ring immortal. Fraught with tension, romance, veiled sexual allusions, and of course verisimilitude because of the historical trappings, it shuffled from writer to writer at the studio for fine-tuning and revisions. Extreme care was taken with phrasing, because of the sexual entendre it had to squeeze by the snoopy censors who upheld the puritanical codes that guided content in that era. Surprisingly for a Hollywood effort, the essence of the play remained intact and the key was finding a cast that supplied the beguiling chemistry.
Ronald Reagan was briefly considered as the first choice for the lead role of Rick, but perhaps they feared he would fail to impress Nazis with a ” Gipper” speech or commentary on the virtues of supply-side economics, so it fell to Bogart. A product of gangster films, there was concern that he lacked sex appeal. But to paraphrase author Noah Isenberg in ” We’ll Always Have Casablanca”, “Once Ingrid Bergman looked on him with an amorous glaze, that was rectified and he had sex appeal thereafter.” Contrary to the scandal mongers, their relationship was strictly professional and they had bare interaction off-screen. One can say this for those Hollywood types, they stick to the task at hand and eschew excess and hedonism. Not that Bogart was entirely immune to leaving a little dew on the lily, he just reserved it for other quarters. A sailboating enthusiast who developed a love for that pastime on Canandaigua Lake in upstate NY, he proved a perfect match for the script with his compelling screen bearing and flawless control of dialogue.
Ingrid Bergman would scorch the screen as the female lead in the defining role of her career. The seductive Swede made her presence felt in some prior films and was on the ascent to stardom when she was contacted to play Ilsa Lund. The 27-year-old Bergman was living in Rochester, NY when notified of her selection. One assumes she was happy to leave Rochester and its perpetually foul weather and find a comfort level in more alluring California. Besides, no rational person considered Rochester a mecca of the film industry in those days although it would grow as an attraction for those of homicidal leanings. Hitchcock would have been delighted with the availability of source material had Rochester ever been on his itinerary.
In a movie that had a treasure lode of poignant moments, two of the most memorable were derived from songs. Ilsa (Bergman) beseeches “Sam” the pianist/singer to play ” As Time Goes By” but he is reluctant because he has been forbidden by Rick to do so. Nevertheless Ilsa persisted and contrary to legend, neither she nor Rick ever said, ” Play it again, Sam”, they said, ” Play it, Sam.” And of course ultimately he complies, much to the delight of film and music aficionados then and ever since. Sam himself is an intriguing character. He is played by Arthur “Dooley” Wilson, a singer and drummer from Chicago who ironically had done performances in Morocco. There was one hitch in assembling the script: Dooley didn’t know how to play the piano. That service was performed off-screen by staff musician Elliot Carpenter as Sam mimicked him for the camera. In an interesting aside, there was initially the prospect of having Lena Horne being cast as the singer, which certainly would have changed the dynamics.
While “As Time Goes By” stroked the romantic pulse, the rousing rendition of ” La Marseillaise” at the nightclub in response to the Germans singing their own national anthem was one of the highlights that had a spillover effect. Because it symbolized defiance in the face of oppression it had more immediacy to the World War Two audiences. In theaters throughout America, moviegoers would rise and sing along as an act of solidarity with the French and other Europeans who suffered under the yoke of the heavy-handed Nazi regime. Because of German domination, the movie wouldn’t be released in Europe until 1945, initially in Lisbon, then later throughout the continent. The first version shown in Germany in 1952 didn’t include Nazis or the Marseillaise, which was as ludicrous as a 1955 CBS edition of ” The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” that failed to include black people or the word slavery. One may chafe at the excesses of political correctness in our modern era, but there have always been groups of tender sensibilities who took offense at the slightest provocation. Finally in 1975, the uncut edition of Casablanca was shown in Germany and it received a positive reception.
One of the great ironies of the movie was that many of the actors and extras were refugees from Europe. A number of them were in fact Germans who detested the Nazis and came to the U.S. as Hitler led the Reich down a ruinous path; while others fled from some thirty different nations. These included Peter Lorre and Paul Henreid, the latter played Victor Lazlo, who was one of the three main characters and was targeted by the Gestapo for arrest. The theme of refugees was of paramount importance in the story line, often eclipsing the romantic maneuvering.
Part of the tapestry of seduction is the multi-layered story lines and themes which speak to the historical milieu of the time and the throb of amorous longings raging eternal. Its force and popularity has endured. Many spin-offs, both in Hollywood and television have attempted to recapture the magic of the original, they were doomed to failure. None can meet the measure of Bogart and Bergman on a rainy night on a tarmac, a scene of parting spasms of anguish that etched them and the film as cultural monuments. And they are joined by a song, As Time Goes By has struck romantic and nostalgic chords ever since and plucked aching notes on the landscape of broken hearts. As Noah Isenberg has observed, ” A song is the real star of the film.”
For your dessert, the sources:
Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History – Bill Schutt
We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie – Noah Isenberg